Special Report

A Glimpse of Berkeley

And some thoughts about racial preferences and equality before the law.

By 10.12.12

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Recently I spent a few days on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. If you haven't been there, it's a beautiful place. In the old days, well-off San Franciscans would move to Berkeley in the summer to escape the chilly San Francisco weather -- and I do mean chilly summers.

A professor at the university, whom I was interviewing, arranged for me to stay at the Women's Faculty Club. It is set in a dense glade of trees, close to the Sather clock tower, Berkeley's most visible landmark. The "women's" abode is only a few yards from the regular faculty club, which was booked up, apparently. How they ever became (nominally) separated by sex I don't know. In today's environment that seems most irregular. The women's place, despite the presence of a few men, seemed to be mostly empty. But it was comfortable.

While on the campus I saw lots of Berkeley students walking about between classes. Sometimes I even saw them in their classrooms; the weather was fine and some of the professors kept their doors open. What struck me was how earnest and serious the students seemed; listening intently and busy taking notes inside the classrooms; outside, walking along with earbuds, and again listening intently, or at least absorbed in something. Gone are the sixties!

The associations that the word "sixties" evoke actually began around 1964 at Berkeley; with the free-speech movement, Mario Savio, riotous behavior and other things that you don't want to read about. True, most of that behavior was triggered by the military draft, and as soon as that ended so did "the Sixties." The draft ended in 1973.

What are today's students thinking about? You can't tell. Getting a job when they graduate, says my wife. But who knows? Even if you ask, they won't reveal much once they see you're an oldster. Sometimes I think the gulf between the generations is wider than any other gulf -- between the races, for example.

Talking of race: an actual majority of today's Berkeley students seemed to be "Asian." That's the correct word, I'm told. Furthermore, it took me some time before I realized that I hadn't seen a single African American on the campus. Maybe I missed one or two. On the Stanford campus, across the San Francisco Bay, I would often see the black students, but almost always they would be sitting together in a tight cluster.

I checked online and one figure said that 4 percent of U.C. Berkeley students are black (compared with 6 percent in California as a whole). A recent count of freshmen among the 25,000-odd undergraduates at Berkeley showed: Asian American 43 percent, whites 32 percent, Hispanics 12 percent, African American 4 percent, international, 3 percent. (The last mostly Asian, too.) Asians (currently 13.5 percent of the state's 37 million population) seem to enjoy a kind of immunity right now, but I wonder how long that will last. I hasten to add that I'm not disturbed by their predominance on campus, mainly because they get there by working hard.

As it happened, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an affirmative action case this week, in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. It was an appeal against the court's long time justification for racial preferences in education. It all started with The University of California Regents v. Bakke case, argued 35 years ago before the Supreme Court. It supported the use of racial preferences. Then the Court did so again in 2003, although in watered down form. That 5-4 opinion (Grutter v. Bollinger) was written by Sandra Day O'Connor, who has since retired and been replaced by Samuel Alito.

In the current case, Abigail Fisher applied to the University of Texas in 2008, but was rejected under their admissions policy, which considers various factors including race and academic performance.

Meanwhile, in California, 54 percent of the electorate voted yes on Proposition 209 in the 1996 election. That ballot initiative banned all "affirmative action" in government employment and public education. Key support for the proposition was given by Ward Connerly, a (black) member of the U.C. Board of Regents. He would always refer to "racial preferences" rather than affirmative action. The ACLU challenged Prop. 209, but the (liberal) Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 1997. The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to hear the ACLU's appeal.

This topic is memorable for me because it is what first turned me into a conservative. Preceding the Bakke case was one involving Marco DeFunis which came before the Supreme Court in 1974. I remember reading about it with amazement one day in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

In the civil rights cases, then so recent, equality before the law was on everyone's tongue. It was the great and hard-to-dispute principle used by liberals to promote their own virtue above that of the racists.

"Is equality before the law no longer good enough for these people?" I began to wonder. Now it was being abandoned, supposedly in favor of something better -- positive discrimination. "Are they hypocrites?" It crossed my mind that they were promoting a special and undeclared cause -- the advancement of their own power -- even if it meant trouble for the nation.

The DeFunis case was declared moot. Although he had applied to medical school and was turned down on the basis of his (white) race, he had been admitted to another medical school while his appeal was underway.

The same outcome could emerge with the new case. Today's plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, went on to attend another college and has already graduated. She no longer has any intention of going to the University of Texas. Justice Kennedy, thought to be the swing vote once again, could easily decide to let the lower court's ruling prevail. (Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself and a 4-4 split on the high court would leave current law unaffected.)

The most serious argument against racial preferences, beyond its betrayal of the honorable principle of equality before the law, is that it stigmatizes all college bound blacks, including those who would have been admitted without any help. It puts an undignified question mark over their heads, no matter how able they might be. People are entitled to think: "Did he get here because he was the beneficiary of a special preference?"

A final comment. Everyone in the academy today professes to believe in diversity. I don't believe them. The professoriate, 90 percent of whom are liberal Democrats, seeks diversity only in a specialized sense. They have already consolidated a uniform political message among themselves and they want to preserve that. But they also want to reach beyond the middle-class whites whom they have already mostly converted to their cause.

Now they'd like to reach out the whole world of university students with the same undiluted message of American-style liberalism. That's what they really mean by "diversity" on campus. They want to preach to those who may not have already imbibed their message. It's imperialism disguised as liberalism.

Does that sound cynical? Maybe it is cynical. But it only matches the cynicism of the liberals, who preached equality before the law -- as long as it suited their purposes.

 

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).